Bob Downing

SLIPPERY ROCK, PA.: The trails at the Jennings Environmental Education Center in western Pennsylvania aren’t any different than trails elsewhere.

But I was hiking them differently. I was constantly looking down at the mowed paths through the 20-acre wet prairie — on the lookout for reclusive eastern massasauga rattlesnakes.

I never saw any. But I was ever vigilant along the trails. It was, I told myself, a natural reaction. I couldn’t help myself.

The snake is the No. 1 species that visitors want to see (from a safe distance) at the Jennings Environmental Education Center with its five miles of hiking trails. The 300-acre state park — four miles south of Slippery Rock and 12 miles north of Butler — is one of the few places you will find such rattlesnakes in Pennsylvania.

The Jennings Environmental Education Center, adjoining Moraine State Park, is one of the snake’s few remaining areas under public protection in Pennsylvania.

There are trailside interpretive signs and even brochures about the rattlesnake. It is the star attraction at Jennings, along with a rare prairie flower. The snakes are not numerous, perhaps 30 to 60 of them at Jennings, officials said.

The eastern massasauga (pronounced massa-sawg-a) is a small, timid rattlesnake. An adult is about 24 inches in length.

Adults are gray or light brown with large, light-edged chocolate brown blotches on the back and smaller blotches on the side. Young snakes have the same markings but are more vividly colored. They have thick bodies, heart-shaped heads and vertical pupils.

They are venomous and may bite if surprised or threatened. They live in wet prairies, marshes and wetlands. They may be found in burrows and under logs and tree roots.

The massasauga lives symbiotically with the white crayfish. The snake often lives in crayfish holes but does not eat its host. It attacks meadow voles, the main predator of crayfish, as well as mice, frogs, other snakes and birds. Such a system keeps the number of crayfish, rattlesnakes and voles in balance.

They can find prey by sight, by vibrations, by sensing heat and by odor.

The massasauga lives from central New York and southern Ontario, west through Ohio to Illinois and Iowa. It is at the eastern end of its range in Pennsylvania.

It is an endangered species in that state, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed designating the snake as a threatened species federally because its numbers are declining throughout its range.

You can hike through the snake’s lair on several short prairie trails at Jennings: the 0.22-mile Blazing Star Trail and the 0.22-mile Prairie Loop Trail. The 0.47-mile Massasauga Trail begins in the meadow and runs into the oak and hickory forest. There is a swampy area along Big Run, a stream.

All three trails are on the north side of state Route 528 that cuts through the center.

The state is following what it calls “a holistic management approach of protection, research and habitat stabilization” to ensure the massasauga’s delicate population for future generations.

Generally, a massasauga cannot strike more than half its body length. Visitors are advised to stay at least 5 to 6 feet away. Even baby massasaugas are venomous, though they may not yet have grown rattles.

There is no record of anyone dying from a massasauga bite in Pennsylvania, but such bites can be serious. Nationally, eight people a year die from snake bites. (Highway accidents kill 114 per day.)

Visitors are asked to report all massasauga sightings to the park office. Simply give a wide berth to any snakes and enjoy them from a distance, is the park’s advice.

The massasauga is inclined to slide off into cover, not to confront people. Visitors are directed to stay on trails for their protection and the snake’s.

The park also advises visitors to watch where you step and where you place your hands. Also, wear boots and long pants, especially near the swampy and marshy areas. Do not approach or pick up any snake you do not recognize. Most snake bites are due to human carelessness.

Keep pets on a leash and under control. Dogs are apt to nose around the snakes and the snakes may bite in self-defense.

The prairie is at its colorful best from mid-July to early September. The star wildflower attraction is the blazing star.

Jennings was the first preserve established in Pennsylvania to protect an individual plant species, and it remains the only public and protected prairie in the state. The purplish flowers of the blazing star are common on the Great Plains but not in Pennsylvania.

It rises spike-like 3 to 6 feet before blossoming in bushy, thistle-like clusters. It opens from the top downward. Its peak color at Jennings is in early August with goldenrods, lady slippers and yellow and white daisies.

The blazing star was discovered on three acres in 1905 by botanist Otto E. Jennings from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History. He found other prairie plants struggling to survive at the edge of the hardwood forests.

It was a relic prairie that had emerged about 7,000 years ago. A warm, dry period allowed the prairie to spread from the Midwest to Jennings. Later, it became cooler and wetter.

Trees have struggled to gain a foothold in the Jennings prairie because of the clay deposited by a glacial lake, Lake Edmund. There is not enough soil atop the impermeable clay for trees to do well.

Jennings is home to about 10 animal species of special concern and more than 380 plant species. Parts of the prairie are burned every spring to keep invasive and competing plants away.

Jennings convinced the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to acquire the tract in 1950. The conservancy leased the property to Slippery Rock State College in the 1970s, and it became a state park in 1981.

One of the most unusual plants found at Jennings is the American columbo that blossoms once in its lifetime and then dies. It is being studied by botanists.

Three-fourths of the acreage at Jennings is forest with streams, valleys, ridge-top forests and wetlands that provide a diversified habitat for wildlife.

The trails at Jennings are generally very short. They offer lots of loop options.

The longest is the Glacier Ridge Trail, a 15-mile link between Jennings and Moraine State Park to the south. It is also a section of the federally designated North Country National Scenic Trail that runs 4,600 miles from New York to North Dakota.

Hikers may see historic clay pits and the ruins of a sawmill on the grounds. There are also the nearby Old Stone House (a stagecoach inn from the 1820s) and the Foltz School House off state Route 8 on Slippery Rock University property. The school, one of the last one-room schools in the state, closed in 1963. It was built in 1880 on the site of a log school.

Jennings is about two hours from Akron. The grounds are open from sunrise to sunset daily. It offers picnicking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Mountain bikes and motorized vehicles are prohibited on the trails.

The center with exhibits and numerous school group tours is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays plus some weekends. The center is at 2951 Prospect Road, Slippery Rock, 724-794-6011, www.­visitpaparks.com.

Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.